Has science found the answer to how to teach children effectively?

Neuroscientists documented the link between spatial and verbal thinking by scanning the brains of students taking a course that emphasized spatial learning.

“For a long time, psychologists and philosophers have debated whether spatial thinking, like visual representations of objects, actually lies beneath thinking that appears to be verbal,” explains Adam Green, senior author of the study and associate professor emeritus at Georgetown’s College of Arts and Sciences in the department psychology. “If this is true, then teaching students to improve their spatial thinking skills should increase their ability to think verbally.”

The researchers studied a “spatially enriched” science course offered in public high schools in Virginia that emphasizes spatial thinking skills, such as building maps and planning how cities can be reconfigured to reduce energy use. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed changes in the students’ brains as they studied the course curriculum, and these changes were compared with traditional ways of measuring learning (such as changes in test scores).

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Brain changes were much better predictors of learning, especially a kind of learning called “far transfer,” which is so profound that it helps students succeed in tasks they weren’t even taught to do. Long-distance translation is something of a holy grail for educators and is notoriously difficult to capture in traditional tests.

Creating models in the mind

The team’s findings support the mental model theory, or MMT, which posits that when humans understand spoken or written language, the mind “spatializes” that information, relying on systems in the brain that originally evolved to help our primate ancestors deftly navigate complex environments .

When researchers tested verbal thinking about words in sentences rather than objects on maps, they found marked improvements in students who took a course emphasizing spatial thinking. Moreover, the better students developed their spatial thinking, the more their verbal thinking improved.

“These results demonstrate that mental modeling can be an important foundation for long-term transfer to real-world education, taking skills from the classroom and applying them more generally,” says lead author and Ph.D. student Robert Cortes (C’18, G’23). “This research not only informs our understanding of how education changes our brains, but also reveals key insights into the nature of the mind.”

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“Verbal reasoning is one of the most powerful tools created by human evolution,” Cortes asserts. “It is incredibly exciting to combine neuroscience and education to better understand how the human brain learns to reason. I hope we can use these discoveries to improve human thinking more broadly.”

Showing new evidence for MMT in the brain, the research team found that improvements in verbal reasoning were best predicted by changes in spatial processing centers in the students’ brains, particularly the posterior parietal cortex.

Creating a curriculum for the skull

Although the mental models debate has a long history, one of the most heated debates in today’s educational environment is whether neuroscience can improve teaching and learning in schools. Although promising in theory, attempts to integrate neuroscience into education have proven difficult in the real world. One of the main obstacles is that neuroscience tools such as MRI scans are expensive and time-consuming, making their adoption in large-scale educational policy and practice unlikely.

“We can’t scan every child’s brain, and it would be a very bad idea to do so even if we could,” says Green, who is also a faculty member in the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience.

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Critics have long raised concerns about whether the data provided by neuroscience can really tell educators what they couldn’t with traditional paper-and-pencil or computer-based tests.

The research team’s new findings point to a new way to integrate neuroscience into education that helps overcome these challenges. Instead of focusing on the brains of each individual student, the study focused on the curriculum the students were learning. The results show that brain imaging can reveal changes associated with learning a specific curriculum in real classrooms, and that these brain changes can be used to compare different curricula.

“Curriculum development can and does happen at scales as small as neuroscience can realistically accommodate,” Green says. “So if we can use neuroimaging tools to help identify the learning methods that provide the most comfortable learning, then these curricula can be widely adopted by teachers and school systems. Curriculums can be expanded, but neuroimaging doesn’t necessarily have to.”

Students enrolled in the space-enhanced program showed stronger brain changes compared to students enrolled in other advanced science programs. These changes appear to indicate a deep learning of spatial abilities that the brain can apply in highly flexible ways that cannot be fully captured by traditional tests of specific skills. In particular, the study’s finding that changes in the brain can predict learning better than traditional tests provides compelling evidence that the inside view that neuroscience provides can give teachers insight into the far-reaching learning they’ve long sought, but which traditional assessment of learning is often missed.

According to Cortes, “this research is a great example of our department’s mission of connecting neurons to their neighbors through science. We hope to use this data to persuade policymakers to expand access to this kind of spatially enriched education.”

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